By Rob Drieslein


Red Wing, Minn. There are a lot of fish kill stories in Outdoor
News, but one still stands out.

It’s been five years since the mysterious kill that all but
wiped out the trout in a two-mile stretch of Hay Creek, east of Red
Wing. The DNR never did determine who or what was responsible for
the kill, and today, in 2002, Hay Creek tumbles along quietly
oblivious to the hubbub that occurred half a decade ago.

Investigators on the stream figure the kill likely occurred on
Saturday, July 26, 1997. The fact that the dead fish weren’t
discovered until Thursday, July 31, didn’t help the DNR and
Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in determining its cause. Most
of the chemical agent likely responsible for the kill had long
since dissipated downstream before much chemical analysis could

The situation baffled the DNR. Insect life seemed relatively
unaffected on the stretch of Hay Creek, but the brown trout count
dropped from 3,100 fish (probably included young of the year fish)
per mile down to 41. No residue from a manure spill was found,
which suggested a chemical spill.

The two-mile kill stretched from the Low Ford Crossing on 320th
St. upstream to the next bridge, a driveway crossing. The
possibility of someone angry about the special regulations on the
stretch of stream was considered. One DNR staffer even said
“eco-terrorism” hadn’t been ruled out. The other possibility was
simply a nonmalicious dumping or accidental chemical spill that
never was reported.

Those were just theories, and no one was ever seriously
investigated or arrested, says Mark Ebbers, DNR Fisheries trout and
salmon program consultant in St. Paul. Ebbers says he’s not sure
why the Hay Creek kill generated so much publicity. A similar kill
on West Indian Creek in Wabasha in 1998 caused almost as much
damage but received little if any publicity, he said.

Bill Thorn, DNR fisheries research biologist in Lake City,
monitored the fishery on Hay very closely before and after the
kill. While the agency did not restock Hay Creek, an all-wild
fishery, it did move 390 wild fish downstream to accelerate its

“It recovered in about a year and a half,” Thorn says. “The
numbers recovered quickly thanks to the natural movement into
there. There’s lots of good habitat upstream under a no-kill
regulation and some of those fish filled the void pretty fast.”

By 1999, data from DNR sampling surveys showed that adult trout
abundance on Hay Creek had recovered to levels similar to those
prior to the kill, Thorn said. Estimates place adult brown
abundance at “a couple of thousand per mile,” he said. The entire
episode showed just how quickly trout can recolonize an area given
good habitat, he said.

Thorn believes the high visibility of Hay Creek, with its
proximity to the metro area and habitat improvement emphasis,
played a role in the headlines the fish kill received.

“It had been a number of years since a previous fish kill of
that magnitude,” Thorn said. “It’s a chunk of water near and dear
to a lot of people.”

Brian Stewart, of Red Wing, thinks he knows why the Hay Creek
fish kill generated so much interest: It’s a fine trout stream with
a lot of habitat work invested into it. Stewart, who owns and
operates Stewart Fishing Co., a fly-fishing shop in Red Wing,
monitors fishing on Hay Creek very closely for his customers and
himself. While the numbers of trout in the stream has recovered, he
thinks the number of large fish could be better.

Stewart joined me for a morning of fly-fishing on Hay last
Friday. We caught several browns on bead-head nymphs almost five
years to the week of the fish kill of ’97. At the same stream
crossing where the DNR believes the fish kill may have originated,
we bumped into a pair of anglers one with an Idaho license

Fish kill or not, Hay Creek’s reputation as prime minnesota
trout water remains.

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